White House officials Friday defended President Obama's request that the government of Yemen keep a local journalist behind bars for alleged terrorist ties.
Abd al-Ilah Haydar Al-Sha'i had investigated a series of airstrikes in December 2009 against what Yemeni officials described as an Al Qaeda training camp in al Majala, finding what he assessed to be remnants of U.S. ordnance - Tomahawk cruise missiles and cluster bombs - and reporting that among the victims of the strikes were 21 children and 14 women. The journalist also interviewed terrorist cleric Anwar Awlaki, an American citizen who was in September 2011 killed by a U.S. Predator drone. His December 2009 interview with Awlaki for Al Jazeera publicly established the cleric's praise of the Fort Hood shooter, Major Nidal Hasan.
In January 2011, Al-Sha'i was convicted in a Yemeni court of terrorism-related charges and sentenced to five years in prison - but he was reportedly in line to receive a pardon. In February 2011, however, President Obama spoke on the phone with then-Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh and, according to a White House read-out of the call, "expressed concern over the release of Abd-Ilah al-Shai, who had been sentenced to five years in prison for his association with AQAP," al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
On Thursday, ABC News asked White House press secretary Jay Carney about al-Sha'i, a Yemeni journalist whose case was recently covered by Jeremy Scahill in The Nation. Carney said he didn't have any information, but would get back to ABC News, a White House official did today.
In a statement to ABC News, National Security Staff spokesman Tommy Vietor said that "President Obama expressed concern last February about Sha'i's possible early release from prison on the basis of his involvement with AQAP-a group that had twice launched attacks on the United States. The President's comments had absolutely nothing to do with Sha'i's reporting or his criticism of the United States or Yemen. A Yemeni court, not a U.S. court, convicted Sha'i. We refer you to the Yemeni government for details on Sha'i's arrest, conviction, and the status of his detention."
The government of Yemen detained Al-Sha'i in August 2010 alleging support to and involvement with AQAP. The criminal indictment accused him of serving as a media advisor for AQAP senior leaders - namely external operations chief Anwar al-Aulaqi, amir Nasir al-Wahishi, military commander Qasim al-Rimi, and deputy amir Sa'id al-Shihri. According to Sanaa News Yemen, the journalist was also indicted for inciting AQAP to strike targets in Yemen. The Yemeni court convicted him in January 2011 on charges of "participating in an armed band and having links with al-Qa'ida."
The U.S. Ambassador to Yemen, Gerald Feierstein, told Scahill that "Shaye is in jail because he was facilitating Al Qaeda and its planning for attacks on Americans and therefore we have a very direct interest in his case and his imprisonment…This isn't anything to do with journalism, it is to do with the fact that he was assisting Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and if they [Yemeni journalists] are not doing that they don't have anything to worry about from us."